China and Vietnam have both been building up paramilitary forces and fishing fleets to stake claims in the disputed South China Sea, according to observers, who warn that the neighbours risk further clashes there after the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat last week.
While Beijing continues its assertive tactics to try to control more waterways in defiance of regional and international opinion, Hanoi is responding but has far fewer boats, analysts said.
The assessment came after a Chinese coastguard ship and a Vietnamese fishing vessel collided near the Paracel Islands on April 2, with each side claiming their ship had been rammed by the other.
The two countries are embroiled in a long-lasting maritime dispute over claims to part of the South China Sea, and often run into fishing disputes.
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Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea as its territory and has built artificial islands with military-capable facilities over reefs and outcrops in the area, which are also claimed in part by Vietnam.
The international court of arbitration in The Hague ruled in 2016 that China’s historic claims over much of the South China Sea had no legal basis. China vowed to ignore the verdict.
Southeast Asian nations have reported seeing an increased number of Chinese vessels in the South China Sea. For example, Philippines said that in the first quarter of 2019 it had seen Chinese 275 vessels – many of them fishing boats – around Thitu Island, the second-largest of the Spratly archipelago, which has been occupied by the Philippines since 1971.
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Backing Vietnam’s stance on the vessel-sinking incident, the Philippines’ foreign affairs department recalled that 22 Filipino fishers were left floating in the high seas last June when a Chinese vessel rammed and sank their boat at Reed Bank, an underwater volcanic mountain northeast of the Spratlys. The Hague ruled in 2016 that Reed Bank was in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
In addition to fishing boats, security analysts have said the two neighbours have built up their maritime forces, comprising naval, coastguard and law enforcement vessels.
Vietnam, at present the most vocal rival claimant of part of the South China Sea, has adopted a similar tactic to quietly foster a state-supported fishing boat militia with military-trained personnel to hold off China, even as the two sides talk formally about easing their sovereignty dispute.
But while both China and Vietnam are building up maritime militias, the power imbalance is obvious.
According to an article written by Nguyen Khac Giang, senior researcher at the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research, China has the world’s largest maritime militia, comprising 370,000 non-powered and 762,000 motor-powered vessels, whereas Vietnam has an estimated 8,000 vessels.
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According to the Pentagon, China’s maritime militias are officially numbered at 21 million fishers and 439,000 motor boats.
Hanoi has also set the ambition of becoming a maritime power by 2030, and vowed to protect its surrounding sea. It has put into effect a new coastguards law, formalising the fleet’s role in protecting national sovereignty and territorial rights.
The deployment of militia vessels reflects some motives shared by China and Vietnam, according to Isaac Kardon, an assistant professor in the Strategic and Operational Research Department’s China Maritime Studies Institute from US Naval War College.
“They can manifest national maritime claims, employ the underemployed and channel nationalist sentiments about disputed national territory and maritime rights in both countries,” Kardon said.
Use of these militia can lower the threshold for using force that need not necessarily lead to conventional military escalation, according to analysts.
“The problem is that China has thousands more fishing boats than Vietnam, and many of them are steel-hulled, while Vietnamese boats usually have wooden hulls, and Hanoi is so far behind in the numbers that it is very unlikely to ever catch up,” said Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at Rand, who wrote the Rand report.
Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said: “If the maritime militia are used more aggressively, that will lead to growing risk of a clash, most likely between Vietnam and China, since tensions have been the highest between those two claimants.”
However, Zhang Jie, a South China Sea expert from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China would begin to rely more on naval and coastguard forces to protect maritime interests, rather than the militias.
“Using militias lies in a grey area and has been hyped repeatedly in recent years,” Zhang said. “Instead, I believe China will focus more on crisis management such as discussing a code for unplanned encounters at sea, since the maritime disputes cannot be solved quickly.”
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